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This Budd's For You

Adam Bernstein

Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg, who died yesterday at 95, was one of the finest writing talents of his generation, and his work stands up remarkably well. He was old, but did not, as has been written, outlive his fame.

One reason was the contemporary feel and tone of much of his writing for book and screen. He was blunt and acid about life's fortunes in an era that celebrated the American way of life. His first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" (1941), was about vice being rewarded. Its titular hero, Sammy Glick, a newspaper errand boy, slithers and slices his way to wealth as a film producer. "Going through life with a conscience," Sammy says in one of the book's most famous lines, "is like driving your car with the brakes on."

Decades later, in an updated epilogue to "Sammy," Schulberg noted how the story's moral punch changed with time. Sammy Glick, he wrote, once seen as "the quintessential anti-hero . . . the free-enterprise system at its meanest," had been transformed into a yuppie hero by a culture obsessed with "do it to him before he to you."

Far more people associate Schulberg with the film that won him an Oscar for screenwriting: "On the Waterfront," starring Marlon Brando. Schulberg crafted one of the best-known and often-repeated lines ever spoken on screen, "I coulda been a contender." The full speech is here, and every word is a gem:

This film alone, which tops nearly every list of celebrated movies, ensures Schulberg lasting fame. But there's so much more.

His later triumphs included the great boxing film "The Harder They Fall" (1956), which gave Humphrey Bogart, playing a sports promoter, his last great movie role; and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), which featured Andy Griffith in what many regard as his best role. Griffith played "Lonesome" Rhodes, a cracker-barrel prophet who self-destructs after he lands a national television show. It proved Griffith could be as powerful a dramatic actor as anyone before or since. It's a shame he retreated from that side of his talent.

Schulberg's work inspired a range of people in the entertainment business -- from Paddy Chayefsky to Spike Lee -- keeping him a relevant artist always worth revisiting. He was and is a giant.

By Adam Bernstein  |  August 6, 2009; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein , Movies  
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